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Roger Williams Speaks

The spirit of Rhode Island's founder, explored in a new exhibit, remains relevant throughout Providence today

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Have you ever stopped to think about what makes Rhode Island great? I’m not talking about our bustling restaurant scene, thriving arts culture, or any other aspect of the state that has made us a creative and collaborative capital, though these are all important. To understand how far we’ve come, we must consider our past.

We’re all familiar with Roger Williams, the Ocean State’s founding father. But did you know that he put his life on the line to create a democratic shift in our political system? That he was in the vanguard of the movement to separate church and state? And that he was one of the inspirations for the Bill of Rights?

Williams’ message of tolerance has never been more relevant than it is right now. And luckily his spirit and ideas are still evident throughout Providence today, including at the Roger Williams National Memorial Park Visitors Center. The center’s first new exhibit in more than 20 years, titled New and Dangerous Opinions, showcases how Williams’ ideas and beliefs are still important nearly 400 years later.

“Williams created a civil government here in Providence, and the people got together and decided what that government was going to do and what it was going to look like,” says John McNiff, a park ranger at Roger Williams National Memorial Park. “Up until then, everybody looked at the King as the king because God wanted him to be king.”

Part of the exhibit focuses on how Williams’ viewpoints are still embedded within the current US political landscape.

“What we wanted to do was something very different,” McNiff says. “You go to a lot of historic sites and as soon as you walk through the door, you’re confronted with the past: old furniture, old paintings, maybe an artifact or two. We want people to walk through the door and see in front of them things that some people consider extremely dangerous opinions today.”

While contemporary opinions considered “dangerous” weren't on Williams' mind, the exhibit makes the argument that debates for marriage equality, abortion access and fights for other civil liberties are in the spirit of his progressive philosophy.
The biggest takeaway that McNiff hopes for visitors to gain from the exhibit is the understanding that change is never easy.

“Roger Williams was a city boy from London who got kicked out of the few settlements of this New World, into what could be considered a howling wilderness,” he says. “But he took that as a blank slate to create something absolutely wonderful. This isn’t a guy who was just a marble or bronze statue or a portrait, he was a real human being. And it’s the decisions that a human being makes on a daily basis that can either keep everything the same as it is or actually move through change.”

The Charter Museum, located in the State House, also testifies to the work of Roger Williams.

“The museum is small and yet provides an incredibly rich experience,” says Nellie Gorbea, Rhode Island’s Secretary of State. “In it, you can see things like the first deed of Providence and the Royal Charter, which was the first foundational document for freedom of religion in this country.”

The original artifacts on display at the Charter Museum are on loan from different local organizations, like Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum and the Providence City Archives. Secretary Gorbea’s favorite piece, a painting of Mary Dyer making her way to the scaffold, is from the Newport Historical Society.

“It’s my favorite piece because it shows that women were involved in these issues of religious tolerance and were leaders in our community. They were willing to die for those beliefs.”

A description in the Charter Museum, titled “New Beginnings,” perfectly sums up Williams’ impact: “Rhode Island’s earliest settlers were moving away from places where they were unwelcome or uncomfortable because of their beliefs. Here, they sought to create communities open to a diversity of thought on how to live and govern” – an especially powerful statement given current political conflict over immigration (in)equality. Secretary Gorbea says she sees this instinct to promote freedom in local-level civic engagement everywhere.

“As daunting as the times seem to many of us, there is a silver lining in activism, which is what this country was founded on. And I’m hopeful because of that,” she says. “Thinking back to Roger Williams and the kind of community they were trying to build here in Rhode Island is the reason I feel at home here. We really do have a history in this place of bringing people together in a way that was not necessarily always free of controversy, but at its very core was meant to be an ideal way of working together.”

The New and Dangerous Opinions exhibit and the Charter Museum both curate and showcase Williams’ beliefs. But his heroic spirit can also be felt at two instrumental city sites: the Roger Williams Landing Monument and Prospect Terrace Park.

“The Roger Williams landing site is a core of who we are as a city and people,” says Wendy Nilsson, superintendent of the Providence Parks and Recreation Department. “It represents our uniqueness, openness and inclusiveness — all of the things that make us a creative, connected and collaborative city. It all harkens back to our heritage.”

The Landing Monument, which can be seen at Slate Rock Park on Gano Street, marks the spot where Williams was greeted by members of the Narragansett tribe in 1636. The monument was rededicated in September 2016 after its plaques were vandalized and removed. The Fox Point Neighborhood Association raised $8,000 for new plaques and the Providence Parks Department covered the remaining costs.

The timing of the rededication was especially important, says Nilsson, because of Providence’s developing identity. “We’ve got really strong leadership with our mayor, who really sees the value of the community coming together and sharing our outdoor spaces. They’re our common ground. To have the landing plaque that represents who we are as a city and the foundations of which we were built is pretty significant. We want to revive and pay homage to the history that has made us who we are.”

The Parks Department is also in the middle of a campaign to revitalize Roger Williams Park, which was dedicated to the city of Providence by Williams’ great-great-great granddaughter, Betsy Williams. And the Prospect Terrace Park Committee, a sub-committee of the College Hill Neighborhood Association, is in the midst of fundraising to restore Prospect Park, a historical site that also pays homage to our founding father.

Committee member and landscape architect Sara Bradford says the project is difficult to phase. “There are smaller things that we can get started on, but the things that are the biggest issues have to do with the walks and the steps,” she says. “We want to make sure we can have this space available for the most people who want to enjoy it.”

Prospect Terrace was envisioned in the 1860s by Isaac Hale – not to honor Roger Williams, but to take advantage of the wonderful view of downtown Providence. The movers and shakers of the time collaborated to buy the property. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the commemoration for Roger Williams came to fruition: a 15-foot Roger Williams statue standing on the edge of a canoe, with his arm outstretched to the downtown cityscape.

“We’re left with a statue that’s hard to see, which is unfortunate,” says Bradford. “I think people go to Prospect Terrace without ever noticing the statue is there, and certainly not knowing that you need to kind of lean over the railing to really see it. I don’t know if there’s a solution to that, but we can certainly make it a place worthy of commemorating our founding father.”

She adds, “Roger Williams had the right ideas. He certainly had courage for his convictions, and he went through a lot of hardship in order to make things come about as he wanted — from a young man all the way through. He was a strong moral and political leader, and maybe as a country, that’s what we’re missing – getting the two together.”